Square Peg, Meet Round Hole
A lesson from childhood
Though it was designed for use by toddlers, as a child, I recall playing with a toy when at a babysitter’s home. I was around six or seven-years-old at the time.
The objective of the toy was to match each uniquely shaped peg with its corresponding hole on a wooden box. Out of boredom, I tried forcing various pegs into mismatched openings.
This was an unproductive endeavor, because a square peg simply wouldn’t fit into a round hole. Even when using a wooden mallet from a separate toy, I couldn’t conjure enough force to introduce a square peg into a round hole.
The lesson I learned was that even when I attempted to enforce an outcome, and despite the effort I put into producing results, life didn’t function according to my commands. A square peg simply didn’t fit into a round hole.
A lesson from the Corps
The idiomatic expression, “Square peg in a round hole,” speaks to something or someone that doesn’t fit in. A banana in a bouquet of roses or a person dressed as a clown while sitting among orchestra members comes to mind.
Of this saying, one source states of British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s use of the metaphor:
Kenelm Chillingly asks, “Does it not prove that no man, however wise, is a good judge of his own case? Now, your son’s case is really your case — you see it through the medium of your likings and dislikings, and insist upon forcing a square peg into a round hole, because in a round hole you, being a round peg, feel tight and comfortable. Now I call that irrational.”
I’m reminded of my time in the United States Marine Corps (USMC). During my active duty service, I largely refrained from use of explicative language, didn’t use tobacco products or consume alcohol, and I didn’t have any tattoos.
During my service, there was an ongoing joke referencing how USMC alternatively stood for Uncle Sam’s misguided children. In retrospect, I was a square peg in a round hole—an oddity among many of my peers.
Abstinence from use of alcohol alone was enough to earn labels relating to me being an “oddball” and “untrustworthy.” The odd Marine who didn’t indulge in ritualistic consumption—especially given that the Corps was said to have begun initial recruiting in a tavern—led to some of my peers distrusting me.
Aside from the option of taking up an activity I swore off since childhood, there was little I could do to counter unhelpful labels. I learned then that square pegs didn’t fit into round holes from a social perspective.
A lesson from REBT
Practicing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I come into contact with clients who disturb themselves by beliefs about square pegs fitting into round holes. However, it isn’t that square pegs and round holes don’t fit that is the problem.
Rather, it’s what a person believes about an unsuitable match that leads to the consequence of uncomfortable bodily sensations, unpleasant emotions, and unhelpful behavior. For instance, take the case of fictional character, Kid, from a classic hip hop film, House Party 3 (1994).
In this movie from my adolescence; Kid seeks advice from his uncle, Vester, regarding Kid’s future in-laws. Kid states, “You see, my girl and I, we get along fine. But, I’m just havin’ a little problem getting her parents to like me.”
From an REBT perspective, Kid is the square peg and his girlfriend’s parents are the round hole. What Kid believes about his future in-laws not appreciating him is what causes distress.
Kid likely believes something along the lines of, “My girlfriend’s parents must like me; otherwise, my marriage will be awful and I don’t think I could stand that being the case.” Kid’s belief about a square peg being introduced to a round hole is what causes worry.
While it is reasonable for Kid to want his future in-laws to like him, it is irrational and unhelpful to demand that this must be the case. After all, a person not getting along with in-laws is so common that there are longstanding jokes about displeasure regarding these relationships.
A healthier belief would be for Kid to conclude, “While I’d prefer that my girlfriend’s parents like me, it’s common for in-laws not to like sons-in-law. I could tolerate it if this were the case, even if I’d prefer otherwise.”
This REBT-informed perspective would better serve Kid, because he cannot control how his in-laws receive him though he can control how he reacts to them. In the film, Kid’s uncle Vester offers colorful advice of a similar nature, though not quite the sort of encouragement I offer clients, by stating:
Parents? Why get ‘em to like you for? Boy, just be yourself. If people don’t like you if you’re being yourself, fuck ‘em!! Let me tell you something. I used to go with a girl when I was about your age. I tried to please her pappy all the time, went out of my way to please her pappy. I come in one day, I said, “Nice weather we have,” and he said, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that. It might rain.” I said, “Nice tie you got on.” He said, “You can’t say that. My wife tried to choke me with it.” The point I’m trying to tell you, son, is be yourself. People don’t like how you being yourself, fuck ‘em!!
Uncle Vester’s advice, though vulgar, correlates with a phrase my late stepmom used—and which relates to square pegs fitting into round holes—regarding a geometry problem that involves squaring the circle. Per one source, this “task was proven to be impossible.”
When presented with absurd scenarios concerning other areas of my life in which I didn’t fit, my stepmom would say, “Boy, you can’t square that circle!” Her sagely wisdom, and Vester’s advocacy for letting go of unhelpful aspirations, conform to an REBT approach.
When we are faced with impractical events that are perceived as upsetting, it’s important to remember that our beliefs about these circumstances are what bother us and not the events themselves. Suggesting otherwise is akin to squaring the circle.
During childhood, I was introduced to a toy that was accompanied by the lesson of not being able to fit a square peg into a round hole. Through military service, this lesson was sensible when considering how I didn’t fit in with many of my fellow Marines.
Using REBT, I demonstrate to clients how a square peg meeting a round hole isn’t what leads to suffering, because it is our beliefs which cause us to become disturbed. Providing anecdotes related to hip hop history and my late stepmother, I’ve illustrated how we may accept ourselves even when we don’t mesh well with others.
Regrettably, some people reject the psychotherapeutic techniques discussed in this post. Instead—and conducting themselves much as I did as a young child—they apply force to situations in which their rigid demands go unmet.
Attempting to hammer a square peg into a round hole can lead to disastrous outcomes. Rather than behaving in a childish manner, we can take personal responsibility for the fact that—perhaps more times than not—we are the cause of our own anguish.
Are you ready to set down the mallet and search for a more appropriate solution to the problems you face? As a square peg, when you meet a round hole, would you like the ability not to afflict yourself with self-disturbing beliefs? I may be able to help.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, and hip hop head from the old school, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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